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Friday, February 3, 2023

Mourning rites of the Bahnar

Updated: 14:42’ - 30/11/2009

Ethnology Institute


The Bahnar, a Mon-Khmer language group, lives in the Central Highlands and southern central Vietnam as the largest ethnic minority group here with a population of over 174,000.

The Bahnar, also called Bahnar duoi nui (under mountain), western Ba Na, eastern Bahnar, To Lo, Bo-nam, Glo-lang, Ro-ngao, Krem, Roh, Con kde, Krang, Bo-mon, Kpang Cong and Y Lang, lives mostly in the central highlands provinces of Gia Lai, Kon Tum, Dak Lak and Dak Nong and mountainous areas in Quang Ngai, Binh Dinh and Phu Yen provinces.

Bahnar people are native inhabitants of the Central Highlands and Truong Son mountain region, living on upland and wet rice cultivation. They also grow subsidiary crops, vegetables, spice plants, sugarcane, fruit and cotton and raise buffalos, cows, goats and chicken. Fishing and picking up forest products are their other sources of income.

The Bahnar lives in stilt houses built on flat areas near water sources. A house is often 7-15 m long, 3-4 m wide, 4-5 m high and 1-1.5 m above the ground. In front of a house is an open or roofed area (pra) with a stair, which is an elaborately carved tree trunk. A house is divided into three parts. The part to the east, regarded as the direction of life, is the place for the house owner and his wife where a stone (hudom) is placed as the treasure and the deity of life of the family. This is a vestige of the group’s former matriarchy. The middle part, which is for receiving guests, has a big stove surrounded by home utensils such as baskets, flat baskets, looms and wine jars. This is also the sleeping place of grown-up girls. The western part is for couples. Small boys and girls do not often sleep in their house but in rong or communal house.

Bahnar costumes are rather simple. Men wear short-sleeved low-necked shirts with red and white stripes in the fringe and loin-cloths, which are winded round the belly and cross the groin to cover part of the buttock. The two ends of the loin-cloth fall in the front and back. Women wear short- or long-sleeved shirts with stripes at the elbow, neck, chest and fringe. To increase their gracefulness, they often wear brass rings round the belly.

The Bahnar lives in a patriarchal family where the husband manages production and takes charge of external relations. Nevertheless, the matriarchy’s traces can be seen in the customs to live in the wife’s family after marriage. A wedding is held after two families agree on which family the couple will live first. They will then live in the other family after several months and the interval repeats for two or three years before the couple can live in their own house. When moving to their own house, a couple must hold a rite to celebrate the new house (toc hnum nao) in which they must present to the village as a new family. This rite marks the termination of responsibility of the couple’s parents toward their children.

In a Bahnar family, old people are respected since they are experienced people who can give proper opinions. Children equally receive inheritance without distinction between natural, adopted and step children.

A Bahnar child is given a ceremony called thoi tan several months after his/her birth and later xau tai (ear piercing) ceremony to pray for the child to reach the other world after his/her death without having to live with monkeys or pigs. When grown-up, girls have to go through a formality called cang tai (ear stretching) and boys through ca rang (teeth grinding) to mark their maturity. After this formality, girls will sleep in the middle part of the house while boys sleep with friends in the communal house and are free to find their lovers.

Bahnar people love to have a big family with many children and grandchildren, which is a symbol of happiness. Couples of the same grandparents often live together in a house for a certain time before they live separately.

The residential and social unit of the Bahnar is village, which is managed by prestigious old men. In the center of each village is a communal house with a curved roof. This is where the village receives guests, holds meetings to discuss common affairs, conducts rituals and resolves disputes. It is also the place of entertainment of young people. In the past, due to limited social relations, the Bahnar had the customs of making friends or relatives in different forms, including sponsorship of children. Such relation between two individuals might lead to the relation between two family lines and consequently to marriage of young villagers.

The distinctive formality of a Bahnar funeral is bo ma (leaving the tomb), a ritual to be conducted after the mourning period or even several days after the burial of the dead if the family is wealthy. A bo ma is held for five days.

On the first day, a ritual is conducted to ask for the dead’s permission to build a new tomb for him/her. Family members clean up the old tomb while the wife or husband of the dead makes offerings to the dead at the tomb. The offerings include the liver, tongue, heart, skin and throat of a pig stringed together, rice and wine.

On the second day, villagers and family members build a new tomb for the dead. They will then have a meal together and talk until midnight.

On the third day, the family and villagers bring food and wine to the new tomb to hold a farewell party for the dead. Before the party, family members put offerings, which are the stuff the dead often used, including plants such as maize, rice, banana and sugarcane, on the tomb and cry to pay farewell to the dead. These offerings are believed to comfort the dead in the other world. The offering ritual is followed by a walk round the tomb by a group led by two people wearing masks. They are followed by dancing women, then six men beating big drums decorated with flowers and finally bandsmen with gongs, drums and other music instruments. People dance around the tomb and stay at the tomb until midnight.

On the fourth day, the family owner slaughters a buffalo or cow at the communal house. At noon, the family brings the head, tail and a string of the tongue, heart, skin and throat of the animal and wine to the tomb and holds another offering rite.

On the last day, the family prepares a meal to thank people assisting it in bo ma and hold a ceremony to express gratitude to deities.

Poorer families can conduct bo ma with fewer days and simpler formalities.-


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